On Mindful Spending and Going Against my Values

Encapsulating My Values

Let me begin with the basis for this episode: I am on a weekly food budget. Each week, I challenge myself to spend no more than $80, including restaurant meals. It is, I think, a reasonable budget for a single person who’s also a food enthusiast. I force myself to be careful and creative with my shopping, with the goal of coming in UNDER budget (carry-over can be “banked”, so to speak). Additionally, I track my food spending—item by item. NOT $7.98 at Pay Less, but rather $3.00 for avocados, $2.50 for cottage cheese, etc. I do this for several reasons. One, to learn to live with less. Generally, I’m quite good at living below my means, but I felt there was still room for improvement. If I know I have to enter each item on a spreadsheet, I think twice about buying, asking myself if I really need it. Two, it’s part of overall expense-tracking. And three, it makes me think about my spending in terms of my values.

So, What Happened

Last week, I was pretty close to my $80 cap. And I wanted yogurt (a common ingredient in a nofunlatte breakfast). And I wanted to make my own yogurt (a common activity in the nofunlatte household). The problem? I had no milk.

For the record, I do not practice a 100% organic, local lifestyle. But that is still important to me. We can get caught up in perfection, realize its unattainability, and simply throw up our hands in frustration and quit. So, I try to do reasonably well, operating on the Pareto modified Principle, where 80% of my purchases are “good” and not sweating the other 20%. Yes, I try to buy food that reflect my values—health-promoting or organic or fair-trade or local or produced by someone or some company with ideals similar to mine. So far, so good. So, I went to a local grocery store, a little short on time, and calculated that I could not buy any local or organic milk with what I had left. Instead of making a choice to forgo milk until the following week or just go over the budget for once, I scanned the refrigerated section for a cheap quart of milk. And what I found was a half-gallon. For 69 cents. Yes, 69 cents. And I bought it.

A Lesson Learned

I bought that milk, even though the cheapness of the price was gnawing at me. I took it home, put it in my refrigerator, and tried to think of a valid excuse for buying it. I could not think of one. I knew I had compromised my values. And that, my friends, was a very good lesson. The remorse from that purchase meant that I would not make that choice again. The few dollars I saved? Paid for them with the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

Ironically—or, perhaps, a nudge from Providence—I read a ’poignant blog post the next night, a post on the difficult road that dairy farmers face. Dairy farming, never an easy way to make a living, is in crisis, with farmers not even breaking even. Some of this has to do with changing tastes, as Americans (and yes, this is a US-centric post) drink less dairy milk and more alternative milks (e.g. soy, almond). But a lot is due to the conglomeration of the dairy industry, with mega-producers dictating the rules, quashing the small farmer. Some are turning to cheesemaking, in an attempt to create a value-added product. Some are leaving farming. And sadly, some are committing suicide.

America: Land of the Cheap

Cheap food, that is. Yet, according to USDA data, Americans spend approximately 6.4% of their income on food, about the lowest percentage in the world. And while I’m not sure if this figure represents actual food purchases and not restaurant meals, it probably doesn’t matter. The point is, I know that I’m already getting a break by buying in the country with the cheapest food. I am informed and I know better. Buying this didn’t fit my carefully considered values. And yet, sadly, I let myself be seduced by a 69-cent half-gallon of milk.

An Addendum and Explanations

First, I am not suggesting that people who are struggling to feed themselves and/or their loved ones ought to “overspend”. For them, that milk might’ve been a good source of protein that week. Second, this post is not an invitation for vegans (or their flipsided brethren, paleo diet adherents) to proselytize—I am fully aware that for many, a dairy-free diet works well. That is not the point of the post. Rather, I suggest that readers consider their spending—and their food spending in particular—in light of their carefully thought out set of values.

My Concoction

Or A Look at the Lengths a Slow Cyclist Will Take

Okay, many of you know that I have drastically cut back on sugar (and sugar substitutes) and white flour/potatoes/rice, as well as alcohol, a process that began with Dry February. During Dry February, I did give myself a couple of exceptions—I’d eat what I was served when at a dinner party AND I’d permit myself an caffeinated energy drink and/or energy gels for my weekly endurance workout. I define “endurance workout” as anything lasting longer than an hour (but in practice, anything over 90 minutes). This worked well and come March, I opted to (largely) continue being “dry”. Okay, I DID welcome dark chocolate (≥ 85% cacao content) back. But I also wanted to try exercising without sugar or sweeteners. I mean, I wanted the caffeine (it was the only caffeine I’d ingest each week, save for the miniscule quantities in four small squares of dark chocolate—limit, one per day!—and the residual caffeine in my daily cups of decaf).

30.47 miles (49 km) and 100 mg of caffeine later–yours truly after a gym session on the recumbent bike, on an empty stomach no less

The Story of My Concoction

The short of it—it ain’t tasty, but it works. Before, I’d have anywhere from 80 to 114 mg of caffeine, depending on whether I started with a Clif or GU gel, Hy-Drive energy drink, or Red Bull Zero. Usually I’d eat or drink this after 20 minutes or so of cycling if indoors or immediately before the ride if outdoors. Midway through, I might add another gel (20 to 50 mg of caffeine, plus the carbs for energy). But in the interest of my sugar reduction, I opted to experiment with another way. This also allowed (and continues to allow) me the opportunity to assess the relative importance of caffeine vs. carbohydrates in my endurance diet.1

So, I was looking for something that would give me about 100 mg of caffeine to start with. To put this in perspective, it’s about HALF the amount of caffeine that you’d find in a tall (12 oz.) Starbucks Pike Place Roast, admittedly one of the more caffeinated brands out there. A small (10 oz.) Dunkin Donuts brewed coffee has about 150 mg of caffeine. On the other hand, a cup of Keurig Breakfast Blend has about 75 mg. And your standard brown diner brewed dishwater contains about 95 to 165 mg for 8 ounces. So I’m drinking about the equivalent of a generic cup of coffee. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you subsist of decaf, it’s the equivalent of speed.

So, I started by experimenting with canned Trader Joe’s cold brew. I was FLYING! Some cursory Google research revealed that cold brew usually has more caffeine than hot brewed due to its longer steeping time. I nixed that because the caffeine content wasn’t available, even though I’d emailed the company.

Next stop—Whole Foods, where I purchased some canned Illy Espresso drink (unsweetened). The caffeine content for the 6.8-oz. can was 152 mg, so 2/3 of that would get me to 100 mg. Well, from past experience, I also noticed that carbonated energy drinks tended to affect me more quickly than still ones. A diet Red Bull worked faster than the caffeine equivalent of Hy-Drive. So I thought I’d add some carbonation to my Illy Espresso drink. Lo and behold, it not only worked, but it worked RAPIDLY! I’ve only done indoor rides (due to the weather) but I have completed 25+ and 30+ mile rides on my new Petra-approved energy drink. AND I have had no need for the mid-ride caffeine or carb boost! Perhaps with the weather improving, I might need that for an outdoor ride (with pollen and wind, outdoor rides are more challenging than those inside a gym). But I’m pleased with the results and I’m keeping all of the data in a personal training spreadsheet.

Like a fun cocktail, but without the booze. Or the fun.

The “Recipe”

  • 2/3 of a 6.8 ounce (200 ml) can of Illy Espresso drink (unsweetened)
  • flavored seltzer water (do not use the kind with artificial sweeteners)

Pour espresso into a water bottle. Add some seltzer water (I add about 4 oz.). This doesn’t taste very good, but that’s not the aim.

1And the word “endurance” is the key, because it sure isn’t speed! I cycle the same way I used to run—slowly, very slowly, but steadily. For me, the distance is more important.

On the Dry Months

Or What I Did on My Late Winter/Early Spring Vacation

What Is Dry?

Back on February 1, I began a month I dubbed “Dry February”, analogous to the relatively recent British thing called Dry January that I’d heard about. Because the impetus for THAT was to give up alcohol for a month and I only drank on weekends, merely refraining from alcohol didn’t seem all that impressive a goal for me. So I upped the ante by eliminating all sugar (including honey, maple syrup, and a few days into Dry February, artificial sweeteners). I took white flour (and finely milled whole wheat flour) out of my diet. I removed white potatoes and white rice and refined grains. In other words, I abstained from “bad” carbs, with two caveats: I would eat what I was served if invited to someone else’s home for a meal and I would permit myself energy drinks and gels for my weekly endurance exercise workout. And there was one more part of Dry February, this one not diet-related—I decided to stay away from Facebook.

So, How Did It Go?: The Results

Swimmingly. Granted, this was, largely, a return to the kind of eating habits I’d had a year earlier, before I started making excuses (oh, I deserve this, I’m too tired to cook so let’s go out, pub food weekly isn’t bad). By the end of the month, I’d felt as though I was back–physically—where I belonged. My skin cleared up, I lost a few pounds, and I had no food cravings, save for roasted, unsalted hazelnuts. I was actually sleeping less, but needing less—the desire to take a nap in the middle of the day was gone. My energy levels increased. My occasional knee pain disappeared. Facebook no longer had a pull on me. Admittedly, I did little cooking, although roasting vegetables was a twice-weekly event in Casa Petra’s fabulously remodeled kitchen. And I ate a lot of salads, so I made a lot of salad dressing.

Given these successes, I opted to continue into March. The idea was to regain some semblance of control over my eating habits, become more food-aware (although processed foods were always a relatively small portion of my diet), and recover my taste buds (like appreciating the natural sweetness in, say, a sweet potato or a Starbucks flat white). And I really cut back on my Starbucks habit, now that mochas (even skinny ones) were off the list.

Dry-ish March

With my positive dietary progress in February, I opted to continue this through March, at least for the most part. There WERE a few transgressions during this in-like-a-lion-out-like-a-lamb month:

  • I ate one square of dark chocolate (at least 85% cacao content), four days per week. Technically not a transgression, as I planned this. Very dark chocolate (and cake batter) were about the only sugar-related cravings I had in February. And I don’t bake much anymore, so the cake batter is a persistent craving, but not of the “I gotta have it” kind.
  • I ate white potatoes three times: once at a monthly vegetarian potluck I attend (I’m an omnivore, btw), once the day after (because I took home some leftovers, including a salad that had some potatoes as an ingredient), and hash browns when I met my Indy Crew for lunch (but less than half—and I picked out all the bits with crispy brown crunchiness).
  • I ate one marshmallow. One of my culinary goals has been to make homemade marshmallows, so I had fun on the first day of spring break (after my grading was caught up), whipping out the stand mixer and crafting some marshmallows. I ate exactly one, giving the rest away. Marshmallows don’t exactly send me into a swoon, so they aren’t tempting. But I did eat one to test them. The verdict: homemade marshmallows are infinitely better than store-bought. And not all that difficult to make, assuming you have a candy thermometer and a KitchenAid.
  • I ate a little bit of white flour twice: Once, at a Mexican restaurant and once at that vegetarian potluck (where my contribution was homemade bread and delicious local cheese). I really wanted to try that bread. It was worth it.

So What Did You Learn, Miss Petra?

A lot. Expect to see a post or two in the future about how Big Sugar and how it conspired with “researchers” to get a country (and increasingly a globe) addicted to sugar. Yes, addicted. I’m not falling for the old canard of “people who are fat lack willpower” (no, they don’t—they’ve been sold a bill of low-fat goods and to boot, the sugar industry, with its co-conspirators in academic nutrition departments, worked hard to suppress widespread dissemination of research results that linked sugar to adverse outcomes, such as diabetes mellitus [the 7th leading cause of death in the United States]). Trust me, I’ll have another post or two on this in the future.

Personally, I’ve identified concentrated amounts of sugar as eating triggers for me. For example, pancakes—I LOVE to go out for breakfast and order pancakes with syrup (since this is something I never make for myself at home). But I noticed that if I eat that, I’ll eat. All. Day. Long. As much as I love them, I’ll have to reserve them for once a year, preferably as dinner.

I’ve learned that, while I enjoy cocktails, I will save the sweet ones for the rare holiday. A glass of wine with dinner—fine. Beer? No (there’s a reason for “beer bellies”). I might have to learn to drink bourbon and/or scotch neat or on the rocks. It’s healthier that way!

I’ve learned that it really IS about the sugar. I’ve lost a lot of weight twice in my life—about 100 pounds after high school and about 40 pounds in grad school. The former method was low-carb (trust me, I got very sick of canned green beans and tuna fish!) The latter method was low-fat. Therefore, I thought the whole low-carb vs. low-fat didn’t make sense (and I thus bought the “calories in minus calories out” argument, the one that Coca-Cola and Pepsico would have you believe). But I’d been thinking recently that there was one commonality to BOTH diets when I was on them—I didn’t eat much sugar! Low-carb diets forbid the stuff and when I was eating low-fat, I refrained from a lot of sugar because all of the good sugary treats, like cakes and ice creams, also contained lots of fat.

One More March Success

I also learned that it is possible to watch The Great British Baking Show without succumbing to something sugary and sweet. In fact, it’s possible to watch said show without even WANTING something sweet. I appreciate the skill and the artistry of the contestants, but I didn’t feel the desire to bake cookies or cakes or pies with the intent of eating them. I did want to bake for the challenge and sense of accomplishment, but not to eat anything myself.

Will I Ever Eat Cake Again?

Of course. And I’ll savor every last morsel. I’m going to eat my sugar calories only when they count, when I’m invited to someone’s home and they’ve made something special for dessert. When I go out to a wonderful new restaurant noted for their sweets. When I invite guests to my home for a dinner party (friends, don’t worry—I’m not going to throw an apple on the table and yell “Dig in!”)

That said, I’m into Dry-ish April now.

On Dry March

Or the Extension of Dry February

Dry February ended a week ago and I decided to extend the “nos” (no alcohol, no sweeteners, no rice, no white flour, potatoes, no Facebook) into March. What had been a personal challenge (i.e. can I do it?) became a veritable creed, especially the “no sweeteners” part. Granted, I feel wonderful physically (and as noted by a fellow gym denizen, apparently look “really healthy”—thank you, Dennis!) But at the end of February, I watched Dr. Robert Lustig’s “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” on YouTube and have become a somewhat reluctant yet enthusiastic convert to a life lived with minimal sugar.

My New Celebrity Crush

Okay, I admit it. I’ve got a small crush on the guy, a renowned and well published pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco. He’s brilliant (an MIT man!), passionate, admits to struggling with his own weight, and most importantly, he’s right about sugar. The video, despite being 90 minutes long, was both compelling and entertaining (and he delivers the biochemistry part in a way that most lay people can comprehend). I read articles and interviews about and with him online. I ordered his book “Fat Chance” and devoured it over the course of three days. BTW, that pun was not intended, but in retrospect, it should have been.

Some of you may have watched the documentary “Fed Up” or the award-winning Canadian documentary “Sugarcoated” and thus find his name familiar. Dr. Lustig has worked with obese, often morbidly so, children and teenagers and knows their struggles. And if you know me, you know of my own struggles—I once weighed 100 pounds more than I do today. Anyway, Lustig’s research squarely points the blame on sugar, especially fructose. Now you might interject and say “hey, that’s found in fruit and aren’t fruits good for you?” You would be correct. But in eating a piece of fruit, you are also getting the fiber, which helps the liver from receiving an onslaught of fructose (where, apparently, is the only place it is metabolized). And in Sugarcoated, the filmmakers show how the sugar industry and their various PR “associations” knew this, but still misled (and continue to mislead) the public about sugar’s addictive qualities and its toxicity.

Sugar Tastes Good!

Yes, Virginia, yes it does. And this is part of the reason why I’m a RELUCTANT convert to the no-crap eating style. I love making sweet treats, even if I don’t partake of them very often (after reading Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories a number of years ago, I cut back on my sugars and refined carbohydrates). I am known for making fabulous homemade ice cream. Crème brulee, rhubarb cake, rich challah—all a delight to make and, of course, a delight to eat. Will I miss this? Certainly, although I will bake again (my, that sounds so inspirational—I Will Bake Again!) When I host a dinner party, I’m not going to throw apples on the table and tell my guests to enjoy their desserts. Naturally, I’ll finish the meal with a decadent sweet. If I’m invited to someone’s home for a meal, I will eat what I am served (not going to be THAT guest!) But I will be making desserts less often (only when I’ll be sharing them with friends). Yes, sugar does taste good. But in the quantities Americans eat the stuff, it’s practically a societal poison. And I don’t want to be poisoned.

The Scariest Thing

For me, the relationship between sugar consumption and Alzheimer’s disease frightens me the most. The too-many-pounds thing bothers me on an aesthetic level, but the thought of literally losing my mind to tangles really makes me wonder whether that sugary Frappuccino is worth it. I never realized that the two were linked (and yes, I believe it is correlation, not causation, but why take the chance?) I thank Dr. Lustig for bringing this to my attention. My grandmother, who did live into her mid-90s, suffered from Type 2 diabetes and dementia at the end (okay, she was very old, but still, should I live that long, I’d want my mental faculties in as much tact as possible).

More to Come

Oh, I have more to write about, more to talk about this. And yesterday I made, of all things, homemade marshmallows, which are almost entirely sugar (4 ingredients—sugar (granulated and powdered), corn syrup (a sugar), gelatin, and water). I did it for the challenge, but honestly, I won’t eat them (I did eat one and they just taste like marshmallows). But still—I have a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll be sticking to Dry March. And continuing to improve my health. Expect another likeminded blog post or two sometime soon.

Dry February–Three Weeks In

I’ve completed three weeks of Dry February and physically, I feel fabulous. I feel strong and fit and YOUNG. I have no cravings for sweets (my big indulgence is nuts these days). The 30-mile bike ride I completed did NOT leave me exhausted–I’m sure I could’ve added another couple of miles. And afterward, I wasn’t ravenous. Yes, I ate afterward to replenish my glycogen (the über-whole grain German bread, the kind with the visible kernels, spread with peanut butter and topped with sliced bananas). But usually I’d have something hyper-sweet and I’d have trouble with sugar all day (yes, I’d famously overeat and overeat).  Even the inflammation in my foot has lessened. I may continue this into March!

The First Real Dry February Temptations–Avoided!

Well, so far this had been going swimmingly–I had a better handle on my diet, I wasn’t craving anything verboten, and my skin even looked better! Alas, at dinner on Saturday night (at a bar/pub/grill type of place), I was sorely tempted to add a beer to my order of a vegetarian Cobb salad. I didn’t, but I really did want to have that beer. How odd, since I’m not really a beer drinker, preferring cocktails and highballs to all things ale. And today I’m feeling a bit anxious and a glass of sparkling wine would be just the ticket. But again, I said “no”.

I DID treat myself to some exotics today–a Hawaiian papaya and a Chinese white pear. Honestly, I’d never even heard of a white pear. But they exist and I am now the proud owner. I haven’t eaten it yet, because I do need to admire it for a few days first!

Dry February–The First Big Test

The first few days of my Dry February went by relatively easily, given that I don’t drink that much and I generally eat healthy during the week. On the weekends, I give myself leeway to indulge.

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I went to Indianapolis for a few errands, namely for me to start looking at bicycles, since I’m getting more serious about the sport. Given that my current bike is a mountain bike and I do my rides largely on paved trails, roads, and bike lanes AND given that my mileage increased last year, I decided to get a road bike. Mike is a cyclist and this is something we do together, him on his fancy carbon fiber Fuji road bike, me on my almost-20-year-old Trek 850 mountain bike. But I’d be a more efficient rider (and faster, so I wouldn’t slow him down) on a road bike. So, off we went to Performance Bicycle and Bicycle Garage Indy to check out some bikes. Unfortunately, it was too cold to test-ride them, so I’ll have to do that some other weekend. But I started to get a feel for the different kinds of frames and the price$.

We decided to eat at Athens on 86th, a Greek restaurant on, you guessed it, 86th St. And this is when I realized that I might have to look at a limited number of options on the menu. No gyros or souvlakis (or any other sandwiches) because of the white flour pitas. Nothing with breading. Nothing with rice mixed in. No moussaka or pastitsio  (white pasta, white potatoes, bechamel made from white flour). And it was cold, so I really wasn’t in the mood for a salad. BUT, I DID find something I could order–Gigantes, kind of like Greek lima beans baked in a spiced tomato sauce. This was unbelievably good! And hot! And allowable under my Dry February rules!

Because I don’t go out to eat that often (maybe once a week), I hadn’t considered the restaurant aspect. However, I am delighted to report that I did not break my rules, nor did I create a new exception. Yay, me!

Day 2–Dry February

Well, I’m well into Day 2 of Dry February (and about 36 hours into my Facebook Fast). No alcohol, no sugar or sugary sweeteners, no white stuff. Except for one of my exceptions–caffeinated energy gel. Yes, it was Endurance Day at the gym, so I powerwalked for 90 minutes (at least a good 5 miles) after warming up with 15 minutes on a rower (first time on one of those in months). Finished with 15 minutes of slow walking to cool down. Did NOT indulge in my usual sugary treat afterwards. BUT I did have a skinny Starbucks mocha this afternoon, after which I decided to add sugar substitutes to the list of banned foods. Frankly, they aren’t any better for me!

And I DID refrain from eating muesli for breakfast/brunch, because there are sweetened cranberries in the mix. I am really going to be that much of a stickler!

One more day!

Tomorrow morning I run my 10th Indianapolis Mini-Marathon in a row (it’s the nation’s largest half-marathon). Am I ready for it? Well, I’ve certainly gotten my fill of carbohydrates!

My annual day-before-the-race meal is pancakes at IHOP, no butter, swimming (née DROWNING) in syrup. Today I was joined by my friend Andy (also running the race tomorrow) and his wife Leslie (she of fantastic cooking skills!) I happily devoured my stack of pancakes with strawberries and bananas and should have plenty of glycogen in my body for tomorrow. These carbs, plus the energy drink with caffeine, should supply me with the fuel I need to finish. That, and a traditional breakfast of one sleeve of marshmallow Peeps, that is!

Forget Ham. Forget Lamb. This is THE perfect Easter dinner.

Yes, it’s the world1 famous Peeps-Nini. After all, what would Easter be without marshmallow Peeps! Allow me to share with you step-by-step instructions so that you, too, can create this gastronomic masterpiece!

First, assemble the ingredients:

  • bread
  • peanut butter (I like the natural style with salt)
  • butter
  • Peeps! (preferably chicks or bunnies) BTW, do not make eye contact with them. Do not give them names. Do not start forming attachments to them or you will never be able to make this sandwich, let alone eat it. You do know that you have to kill those Peeps to cook this, don’t you?
  • ingredients

    1. Assemble your ingredients. Mies en place, people!
    2. Butter the bottom of one piece of bread. Turn it over.
    3. Spread peanut butter on the other side of the piece of bread you just buttered. Place Peeps on top of the peanut butter. Then put the bread/Peeps concoction on top of the panini press.
    4. setupPeepsnini

      Don’t look at their eyes! You’ll feel so guilty knowing that you are about to send them to a gooey, heated, Smores-like death!

    5. Place second piece of bread on top of the Peeps. AND DON’T LOOK AT THEIR EYES BEFORE YOU DO THIS!
    6. PeepNini Before

    7. Butter the top of the second piece of bread.
    8. Place in your preheated Panini press and close the lid. Cook until Peeps have melted. If you do not have a Panini press, you can use a sturdy pan and place a heavy weight on top of your sandwich.
    9. GooeyGoodness

    10. Eat and enjoy! Well, if you named your Peeps Peter Rabbit and Thumper and Fluffy and Bugs, you may not enjoy the sandwich that much. But I warned you about this. I WARNED YOU NOT TO FORM EMOTIONAL BONDS WITH THEM!

    Now that you know how to make this epicurean delight, you’ll be wanting to make a variation of this for ALL of the holidays!

    1My world, anyway!